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There’s little chance of not being astonished by spectacular rice terraces that adorn the fog-blanketed slopes of the Hoang Lien Son Mountains. With their fascinating forms and their water buffalos, they are as enthralling a fixture in these parts as the vibrantly dressed ethnic groups that have settled here.
Yet they aren’t the only attractions in this region of Northwestern Vietnam. In the heart of the mountains is the idyllic township of Sapa: a glorious respite from the sweltering heat and a welcoming outpost for the adventurous set seeking to explore the nearby Ham Rong Mountain.
And then there’s Cat Cat Village, touristy as it may be. Many of us are turned off by that term, but there are a few spots bearing that description that deserve a visit, if at least just once. This tiny village is one such place.
It’s a pinprick of a community in the Muong Hoa Valley — accessible mostly by a narrow set of stone steps a few minutes outside of Sapa — that strode into the spotlight thanks to the Black Hmong people who have set up shop there. It used to be a proper village, established in the 1800s by the Black Hmong to serve as their home close to the fields they tilled.
Today, it’s more of a serpentine trail of small souvenir shops touting naturally dyed brocade, bags and other “handicraft” than an authentic Black Hmong village. I use quotations here, as it must be said that while many of the products are truly handmade, some are so identical they might easily have been mass-produced in a local factory. A glimpse from the top of the jumping-off point provides a hint of the types of shops awaiting gullible tourists.
As I meandered along the trail that leads there, however, occasionally stopping to check out the merchandise and befriending the local kids, I began to see Cat Cat’s charm. Life is quite different here, simpler and without frills, yet seemingly happier somehow. Black Hmong women pleasantly chat away as they toil at their looms all day. The older kids, shy yet ever smiling, help out in the rice fields. Pets run wild without a care. And strangely enough, the small, wooden houses of the locals have squash growing on their roofs.
Many years back, friends and I stumbled into Baguio, the mountain city renowned in the Philippines for its strawberries, local craft and unusually nippy weather. It wasn’t a particularly impressive or beautiful place, but it was peaceful and lush, and I was smitten.
I experienced a similar feeling in Cat Cat, this village in the clouds, awestruck by the exquisite panoramas and by how easy the people here make life seem. It’s an appealingly old-fashioned place to visit, especially if you need a change of pace or a fresh perspective — one that comes with picture-perfect views of a cascading waterfall and mountain peaks.
It’s certainly worth ticking off your travel list.